The Works Progress Administration was part of the New Deal and run by FDR and appointed head of the WPA Harry Hopkins. At its peak it provided over 3 million jobs and had an annual budget of over 1 billion dollars. Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA put artists to work in public art pieces that include painting, music, theater, writing, and historical surveying. Notable artists to have been employed are Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem De Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and Orson Welles (a few of whom weren’t even legal US citizens). The WPA made a particular (albeit segregated) effort to employ African Americans and women, and paved the way at the time for both to become engaged in not only employment but occasionally white collar occupations.
Of course, at times it was met from the right with conspiracy theories and opposition to its Communist tendencies. Ironically all of the artwork at the time mirrors what we now recognize as propaganda posters. This was probably due less to workers’ political leanings and more due to the popular art movements of the time. Social Realism and Regionalism were en vogue in America, largely led by Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton –Jackson Pollock’s art school instuctor, and WPA muralist. Muralism had taken over North America and was a perfect medium for Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera. Dramatic figures in dramatic landscapes full of bold color, preferably done in huge scale was the style.
Like the people of today, the artists of the WPA wondered if the government was headed the right direction, had survived great economic decline, and world war, had a general mistrust of government, and dreamed of simpler life in the country, away from the ever expanding, newly industrialized cities. Regional scene painting lent itself to these tourism posters perfectly in that it captured an American ideal: freedom.
An artist for the WPA could expect full time work for a stipend of $24/week.
From The Library Of Congress:
“The posters were designed to publicize exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, and health and educational programs in seventeen states and the District of Columbia, with the strongest representation from California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The results of one of the first U.S. Government programs to support the arts, the posters were added to the Library’s holdings in the 1940s.”